When hands and fingers were given out, I did not end up in the line for people who want to play the harp, the line where you were given long fingers and strong joints. My finger and thumb joints hyperextend and collapse. My fingers bend nearly backwards when I put pressure on something, like harp strings, with my fingertips. The year I started harp lessons I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis of the base of the thumb. Thumb joint pain is mostly held at bay with daily doses of glucosamine and MSM, but what minimal thumb strength I started with is mostly gone. And a car wreck some 30 years ago left me with nerve damage in my left arm. If I want my hands to sound their notes at the same time, I must start plucking my left fingers at least half a second before I move my right fingers.
My harp teacher, bless her, took all my finger foibles in stride. She devised multiple ways to help me develop finger strength and stability. I diligently drilled all the finger strengthening exercises in On Playing the Harp by Yolanda Kondonassis. I used the eraser end of a pencil to keep the joints on each finger from collapsing while I plucked. I drilled endless four finger chords, first with only finger four playing, then only finger four and three, then four, three and two . . . well, you get the picture.
The years of these finger exercises succeeded in developing joint strength and stability in my index and middle fingers. But after seven years of lessons and strengthening work, I still could not reliably play a four-finger chord and have all the notes sound even or be heard. Finger four would either twang its string as the finger collapsed, or make no sound at all, and thumb sounds were faint at best, and usually non-existent.
My teacher and I discussed my need for finger and thumb stability, as well as the availability of splints, many times. Every year we agreed that I would keep plugging away with the exercises – they’d worked for two of my four fingers, so maybe this would be the year the exercises would finally strengthen my ring fingers and thumbs. But when I started my lessons last spring with two pieces that required thumb slides and four-finger chords, she told me that I really was at the limit of my technique until I got my thumbs and ring fingers stabilized.
Telling me that I wasn’t going to get any better on the harp was the motivation I needed to embark on what proved to be a long and time-consuming process to get finger and thumb splints. I first had to see my primary MD to request an order for an evaluation with a hand therapist. I then saw an Occupational Therapist for the hand evaluation and for the first of many appointments to measure me for the splints.
The first finger splint I received was too big for my left ring finger but fit my right ring finger perfectly, so I only had one additional visit to be re-measured for the left finger splint. Getting a splint that worked for the thumb ended up being quite the challenge. I couldn’t get my thumb into the first splint, despite the measuring prototype fitting well. The second splint stopped hyperextension by preventing me from raising my thumb beyond a 45 degree angle. That wasn’t going to fly with my harp teacher!
At this point the OT took on getting me a thumb splint that worked on the harp as a personal challenge. She took multiple photos of my thumb and of my hands on my harp, e-mailed them to the Silver Ring Splint Company and discussed what I needed to play the harp with one of the splint fabricators. He suggested a modification to the original splint that would allow the necessary “thumbs up” hand position without allowing any hyperextension. The third splint fit my thumb perfectly and worked with the harp. After all the trial-and-error on the splint for the left thumb, the right thumb splint fit with only one appointment to do the measurements.
Nine months after my initial appointment with my primary MD, both ring fingers and thumbs were finally decked out in their new splints. Was it worth the copays for the doctor appointment and the hand evaluation, the multiple trips across town to the OT’s office, the out-of-pocket expense for the splints?
I wore all four splints for the very first time at this semester’s first harp lesson. Warming up, I played a rolled, four-finger, two-handed C-major chord. “That was a wonderful chord. Every note was even, and I can hear your thumb!” my teacher exclaimed. Yes, it was all definitely worth it!